by Alexis Smith, January 20, 2012 12:10 PM
As my farewell blog for Powell's, I wanted to be able to compile all of my favorite Portland-related things. There would be food, and clothes, and thrift shops, and parks, and record stores, and beer, and yoga. It would be a smorgasbord of Portland. I sat down to make my list, starting with Portland's literary delights. And I had to stop there. There were too many book and writing-related links, and the post was ridiculously long. So, for those new to Portland, or just new to the literary scene, I give you:
Port. Lit: A Short List of the Portland Literary Scene
1. So, obviously I'm a fan of Tin House, one of the most respected literary journals in the country, which spawned one of the most respected independent presses. The Tin House blog has great features like "Book Clubbing," in which writers tell you about a favorite bookstore, and "Lost & Found" (my favorite), in which authors tell you about an out-of-print or largely forgotten book they adore.
2. There's also Propeller Books, the books project of Propeller Magazine, both bringing you some of the finest writing to be found anywhere, through the blood, sweat, and tears of 2011 Oregon Book Award Nominee Dan DeWeese and friends. The magazine offers some of the best book reviews and interviews with writers, local and otherwise, I've read anywhere.
3. One of the most influential indie presses in Portland ? the one that started a sensation and kept the passion alive ? is, of course, Future Tense powered by Powell's Books's small press superhero, Kevin Sampsell. I don't think it would be hyperbole to say that Kevin has had a lot to do with the rise and success of small presses all over the Northwest and (dare I say it? yes, I dare) the country.
4. When I read about Matthew Stadler's Publication Studio in Bookforum last year, he instantly became my author crush of the month. The whole enterprise sounded utterly romantic: broke novelist acquires a book-making machine and borrows a storefront. You might as well be in 1920's Paris. Artisan bookmaking in the heart of Portland. Sigh.
5. The Burnside Review is knocking my socks off lately. That's all I really have to say about it. Just read it. It's a delightful way to blow off work for a couple of hours and emerge feeling literate. (Check out their chapbook series, too. Only $6 each! Collect them all!)
6. DIY Publishing! Portland is a city rich in creative resources. The Independent Publishing Resource Center has been at the heart of self-publishing in Portland for as long as I've lived here (since 1999). Along with Kevin Sampsell, the IPRC is what come to mind when I think of truly independent, homegrown, Portland publishing. IPRC brings publishing resources to the community, right above one of Portland's other literary gems:
7. Reading Frenzy. You may not know this about Reading Frenzy, because of the "quality smut" (their words, not mine) sometimes in their windows on SW Oak, but they have some pretty awesome children's books. Seriously.
8. The Loggernaut Reading Series has been around... for years, I honestly don't know how long. I remember readings at the old Mississippi Studios. At Loggernaut, you'll see up-and-coming writers, before they burst out on the scene, alongside established, award-winning authors. Attending a reading series is a great way to keep up with the local literary scene. Bonus: it's a great first date for you winsome, bookish types.
9. Ampersand Vintage. Perhaps the only retail source of vintage mugshots in the Portland Metro area, Ampersand also has the best curated selection of art books and obscure literature I've ever seen. Go for the ephemera, stay for the books. I dare you not to buy something.
10. Take quality writing classes with local authors without taking out a $35,000 loan! I was so excited to find out about Crow Arts Manor, the writing community resource sprung from The Burnside Review. Along with The Attic, and other, smaller writing groups around town, you can workshop your writing and study and hone the craft of your genre without going into debt. Portland excels at this type of thing: a group of talented individuals creating a space for their life's work and making it accessible to the community at large.
11. Small Doggies: It's an online magazine; it's a forum for cultural criticism; it's a reading series. It's a favorite of the literary dudes in my life, which endears it to me even more.
12. Writer's Dojo. I hate to give away my neighborhood haunts, but Writer's Dojo is a peaceful place to write and its own pocket of literary goodness, hidden away in St. Johns. It's not a coffee shop, but there's probably some fresh St. Johns Coffee Roasters brew at hand. Also at hand are other hard-working writers and DojoCreative, the ad agency in the basement that pays for the literary salon upstairs.
13. Sick of the city? Go to the beach to write! The Oregon Writer's Colony offers an affordable little retreat for writers, complete with an author-in-residence. I'll be the House Mentor for a weekend in November, but check out the offerings throughout the year. But the secret's out, so sign up early!
14. Writers next door. It's a virtue or a curse, depending on your perspective (I bat for virtue), but Portland attracts and breeds creative types. Your neighbor is probably a writer. But don't ask her what her book is about; it'll get awkward. Just go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a
by Alexis Smith, January 19, 2012 3:57 PM
One of the things I miss most about working at Powell's (besides working with the funniest, smartest, quirkiest folks you'll ever meet) is finding random, old children's books on our daily carts of recently acquired used books. Some of these books I remembered from my childhood, others were new to me, if not to the world. Here are some of my favorite discoveries from my eight years as a bookseller.
- Plants That Never Ever Bloom by Ruth Heller
Some of Heller's gorgeous nature-themed books are still in print, but not this one. The rhyming text is simple enough for my three-year-old son, but delivers plenty of facts.
In proper scientific terms all of these are GYM-NO-SPERMS.
- Where Have You Been? by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Barbara Cooney
There are favorites and there are favorites. Margaret Wise Brown occupies a superlative category all her own. Her ingenuity attracted some of the best illustrators of her day, including Cooney (known best for her own classic, Miss Rumphius).
Little Old Rook/ Little Old Rook/ Where do you look?/ At the very last page/ Of this very same book/ Said the Little Old Rook.
- Shaker Lane by Alice and Martin Provensen
This is probably my favorite book ever about rural living and changing landscapes. The Provensens, Caldecott winners, illustrated some of the most beloved children's books of the 20th century, like Margaret Wise Brown's The Color Kittens, and countless Golden Books (big and little).
Not so long ago, if you went down School House Road and crossed Fiddler's Bridge, you would come to Shaker Lane. A Shaker Meeting House once stood at the crossroads. Nothing was left of it but a few stones.
- Wonders of Nature by Jane Werner Watson with pictures by Eloise Wilkin
This book is technically back in print, as a Little Golden Book. The version I discovered, years ago, is a Big Golden Book, from 1974. Jane Werner Watson was an editor and author of Golden Books. Eloise Wilkin also illustrated and wrote many Golden Books; the chubby children of her work are immediately recognizable.
Isn't it a wonder the way the woods know that spring is coming before the snow is gone?
- Birds by Brian Wildsmith
Wildsmith ? besides having an enviable variation on my own surname ? had his own distinct way with wildlife illustrations. This book explores the sometimes peculiar, always beguiling, names for groups of different types of birds. So we find "a stare of owls," "a siege of bitterns," "a congregation of plover," and all the rest.
- The Winter Bear by Ruth Craft with pictures by Erik Blegvad
I actually found this one at a church rummage sale for 25 cents. Without a dust jacket, the brown cloth binding didn't look like much. But one look at the illustration and I knew it was a special book. Blegvad, like the Provensens and Wilkin, has illustrated tons of kids' books over the years. (There's a great blog post by another Blegvad fan here.)
I don't know anything about Ruth Craft, except that this is an endearing book about siblings going out to play on a winter's day.
So, three set off/ In the cold still air/ With an apple or two,/ (And plenty to wear). And one jumped high./ And one jumped low./ And one walked backwards.../ As far as he could go.
- In the Middle of the Night by Aileen Fisher with pictures by Adrienne Adams
I adore Adrienne Adams. Almost none of the books she illustrated are in print anymore, so I snatch them up whenever I come across them. Aileen Fisher wrote many nature-themed books for kids, often in unmetered, rhyming verse. This one is about a little girl who wants to know what the world is like in the middle of the night.
And that's where the moths hovered,/ we discovered,/ feasting on bread and honey/ because (isn't it funny?)/ moths do their sleeping when it's sunny.
(A note on the pictures: I took all these pictures on my beloved 1960's faux bois laminate kitchen table. It belonged to the old lady who lived in the house my dad bought in Seattle when I was 11. The lady sold us a bunch of furniture with the house because she was moving into assisted living. For a long time it was in my dad's kitchen, then in his garage under piles of vinyl records. A few years ago he gave it to me when I needed a new kitchen table. Now, it is my favorite backdrop for taking pictures of the second-hand books, records, and objects I
by Alexis Smith, January 18, 2012 11:45 AM
When I have a writing deadline approaching, you'll probably find me in the kitchen. It's horrible, I know, but when I work with a deadline, I tend to find elective domestic projects — cooking, baking, canning — irresistible.
Here's how it goes: I'm sitting at the computer, staring down the blank page, or the half-written book review, or the novel-in-progress, when I realize I'm thirsty. Not for water (of course not), but for a hot, freshly brewed cup of tea. I go to the kitchen, fill the kettle, rinse my big blue English teapot, fill it with loose-leaf Keemun, and wait for the water to boil. As I wait, I realize I'm a bit peckish. I open cupboards, peer at jars of dried fruit and nuts and crackers. Nothing calls out to me. What could fill this wee, nagging hunger? A cup of tea and... a cup of tea with a little honey and... I glance at my shelf of cookbooks. A cup of tea with a little honey and buttered toast. No! Freshly baked bread and butter. Yes! A simple slice of bread, warm from the oven, spread with salty, creamy butter. My mouth is watering. I pull out Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce and scan the table of contents: I've been meaning to have a go at her oatmeal sandwich loaf. With nary a glance at my blinking cursor, I tie on an apron and pull out the Pyrex bowls.
During the writing of Glaciers, I had many deadlines. I met most of them on time, and the rest, eventually. But my kitchen accomplishments during this time were intensely gratifying.
For example, I perfected my recipe for chocolate chip cookies (based on a combination of the chewy chocolate chip cookie recipe from The Best American Classics and the cowboy cookies in Baked Explorations). Baking quick breads and sweets is my most common form of procrastination. "I'll just whip up some brownies and write while they bake," I tell myself. I have a couple of vintage copies of Maida Heatter's books (if you've never heard of Heatter, start here, and I pull them out when my cravings lean nostalgic (date bars, zucchini bread).
In the winter, craving heat from the oven, I made bread from The River Cottage Bread Handbook, The Bread Bible, and Beard on Bread. Bread may have been the biggest stress-reliever, with all the kneading, until I tried Jim Lahey's no-knead method (My Bread), which is ridiculously simple, but time-consuming and prone to obsessive tinkering once you master it.
This last summer, as Glaciers went from manuscript to uncorrected proof, I made a cupboard full of preserves from Canning for a New Generation, Tart and Sweet, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, and Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It. Along with the fresh berry jams, of course, one needs biscuits, for which I inevitably turned to Edna Lewis, whose Taste of Country Cooking I found at a Goodwill years ago.
I started having occasional Sunday Suppers for friends and family a couple of years ago, which required poring over cookbooks, mostly checked out from the library, and advanced planning of main dishes, like my first ever roast chicken (via Thomas Keller), for which I bought a seven-pounder — the biggest they had — at New Seasons Market.
I subscribe to Saveur, which is, in my humble opinion, the best food magazine out there (and don't go all Gastronomica on me; it's way too expensive to qualify as a magazine). Over the holidays, when I should have been finishing my website, blogging, and prepping for the coming readings, I was thumbing through Saveur's December issue, marking recipes for bûche de nöel, and going to their website to watch their handy video tutorials.
And here I am now, working on another book (agents waiting in the wings), beginning a book tour, doing promotional writing, like this guest blog (i.e. five days of deadlines). I am surrounded by cookbooks. My mouth is watering. Where you will find me, moments from now: in my kitchen making the Moroccan merguez ragout with poached eggs from The Food52
by Alexis Smith, January 17, 2012 11:15 AM
Every Sunday morning since the start of the New Year, I've taken a hike in Forest Park
. It's a trend I won't be able to keep up through the coming months as I travel around Oregon and Washington for readings. Nevertheless, I will pine for these excursions while I'm away. Forest Park is the wooded wilderness that stretches over seven miles along the western ridge (known as the Tualatin Mountains by Native Americans and the West Hills by today's locals) of Portland. I have a commanding view of these hills and their mostly coniferous (Douglas-fir, hemlock, and cedar) forest from my apartment in the St. Johns neighborhood.
If you've read Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis's fantastic Wildwood, you have read about this extraordinary place (though it may not be quite as extraordinary as their heroine, Prue, finds it). I imagine a time, years from now, when The Wildwood Chronicles have reached the status of an American Chronicles of Narnia, and children all over the country beg their parents to take them on pilgrimages to the Wildwood Trail.
The Wildwood Trail is an actual footpath that meanders through the north-central stretch of Forest Park, intersecting other trails and firelanes, creating sundry loops. Like all the trails in the park, you will cross rustic wooden bridges over burbling streams, and find mossy ravines pierced by golden arrows of sunlight or wrapped in the damp embrace of clouds. Though the Wildwood Trail is well-trod by the likes of me, quietude and reverence prevail.
On our recent hikes the weather has varied wildly. New Year's Day was crystal clear and windy; we stopped frequently to lean against swaying trees and listen to the creaking and whistling. The following weekend, while St. Johns was in the grip of an impermeable fog, up in the hills the sun was just breaking though the wooly branches, glinting off of hundreds of new-spun, dew-drenched spiderwebs. And the most recent Sunday, with temperatures around 34 degrees, I poured hot black tea into a jar and bundled up for a leisurely stroll through the snow-dusted ferns.
Things we do while hiking in Forest Park: look closely at lichens and fungi; listen carefully for the bushtits and chickadees, red-breasted nuthatch, and Townsend's warblers; look up at the snags (standing dead trees) for birds of prey and mammals perching there.
When we get home, we might pull out some of our favorite books to recall scientific names or geological terms: Non-Flowering Plants (A Golden Nature Guide) by Shuttleworth and Zim; One City's Wilderness by Marcy Cottrell Houle; Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, and Zim; Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and MacKinnon; and In Search of Ancient Oregon by Ellen Morris
by Alexis Smith, January 16, 2012 11:32 AM
Last fall, I was reading over the final proof of Glaciers
when I came across the passage in which my heroine's love interest drinks coffee from a mason jar. I paused, eyes focusing on the words: mason jar
. My mind went back to when I started the book, in the winter of 2003-2004. Some of my Powell's coworkers used mason jars with lids in place of Nalgene bottles and aluminum travel coffee mugs (I assumed that, like me, they preferred drinking from glass). I flashed ahead in time to my friends at Dove Vivi
, who have been serving water at their tables from vintage quart jars since they opened in 2007 (along with the tasty corn pizza and the endearing thrift store assortment of forks, it was one of the things that made me fall in love with them). But by the time I was reading that final proof of my novel, it was 2011, and I had recently dined at two
new Portland restaurants in which I was served water in wide-mouth pint Ball masons. I had mentally added them to the list of all the other cafés and restaurants and brewpubs in town already using jars for drinking glasses.
I stared at the page of my novel and thought, "This isn't a unique character trait anymore." In my mind, Glaciers takes place during Bush's second term, but it's not explicit. I just had a feeling it would read differently to people now. I tried to think of something that could stand in for the mason jar. Then I thought about cutting it. I didn't want this character to be a cliché of Portland trends.
But one thing held me back: I love mason jars. They are simple, handy, elegant containers for just about anything: buttons, flowers, seashells, dry goods, honey... And I love that this character drinks from one. In my heart he will always be a mason jar guy: humble, unadorned, economical. So, the mason jar stayed, and the book went to print.
In the following months, I nearly forgot about this whole episode of doubt. Then came this, recently, in the fantastic Willamette Week review of Glaciers: "Though some of the Portland references feel excessive, mostly because we see them every day — flannel shirts, bicyclists with one folded pant leg, black coffee in Mason jars — ..." and I stopped reading right there with a groan.
It was bound to come up, especially in a local paper. Portland has a love-hate relationship with its status as the hippest little city in America. We'd rather be admired for eschewing hipness than garnering it, but we just can't help it: we're crafty, smart, talented, cute-as-a-bug, and humble-as-homemade-pie. I'm not really sure why it causes so much angst (all the more fodder for Armisen and Brownstein's Portlandia), but I admit to having suffered from it myself at the mere mention of the mason jar in my novel.
Pondering my discomfort at one o'clock the other morning (I'm not kidding), I wondered what it was about mason jars that makes them ubiquitous these days. On Etsy, you can find them fashioned into everything from soap dispensers to lamps (for the record: my favorite lamps are by Boots N Gus). The dessert-in-a-jar trend has been in full swing for at least the last year. Which, of course, prompted the recent "cupcakegate" brouhaha for the TSA. The TSA statement on the incident actually uses the word "newfangled" to describe what differentiates a cupcake in a mason jar from a cupcake in a box. As a friend ranted on Facebook: "We all know such a durable, non-toxic container would never be designed today!"
She's right: the mason jar harkens back to days when American-made goods were plentiful, reliable, and reusable as a matter of course. In that way, mason jars are part of an American cultural shorthand. They call to mind not "simpler times" but a time when people did for themselves because they had to. The revived popularity of the mason jar in Portland and elsewhere represents an assertion of values that emphasize utilitarianism and practical knowledge, a connection to raw materials, and an appreciation for process.
Canning has joined a long list of revitalized domestic and cultural pastimes, like home brewing, keeping poultry, knitting, and listening to vinyl records. Portlanders are people who do because it honors manual labor and home economics in a time when more and more of us have not found a place in the American economy for our bachelors, or even our masters, degrees. In that way, to embrace the mason jar is to embrace the absurdity of it all: "What else am I going to do?" the 30-something barista/bartender/bookseller/clerk thinks. "I might as well pickle things."
And that's why I'm letting it go — the angst — right here, right now. I'm proud of this city and its embrace of a historically significant, utterly lovable piece of Americana, for drinking coffee black in the kitchenette, sweet tea at an upscale restaurant, or room temp tap water at a corner café. And to those for whom the mason jar is not just a receptacle, but a muse: Let us promise, though the trends may fade, that we will always remember why we were so besotted in the first